Unlike year’s past, Suzzanne Freeborn won’t have her family around a large table for Thanksgiving dinner.
The two-and-a-half-year Starbucks partner (employee) will be traveling from Washington to Missouri where her youngest child is getting married the next day. Meanwhile, her eldest is on business in Asia and her middle child is serving aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer at sea for the next several months.
Freeborn, the daughter of a U.S. Army veteran, recalls Thanksgivings growing up in Europe when a dozen guests from the base gathered at her parents’ home. And she fondly remembers her own family’s dinners when her children were younger. This year won’t be like those all-the-trimmings years, but her loved ones are in a good place and she’s thankful for that.
As a member of the Starbucks veterans and military spouse community, Freeborn embodies mission-driven sensibility and work ethic of those connected to military service. Military spouses volunteer at a rate more than three times the national average, according to the Blue Star Families Military Families Lifestyle Survey, and Freeborn has involved herself on a number of fronts – most passionately with the welfare of neglected children.
A Child’s First Words at the Age of 3
Raised mostly in Germany and Belgium, Freeborn moved to the United States when she was 16. Her parents were convinced she’d benefit from having an American high school experience. She missed Europe, however, and returned to attend the University of Munich. There she met and married George Freeborn, a U.S. Air Force pilot.
The couple returned to the United States, where Suzzanne became involved in the foster care system and had a son of her own. She thought about having a second child, but her encounters with children in need of a home changed her perspective – one girl in particular.
Nicole was a 2-year-old who weighed only 11 pounds when she was discovered. For most of her young life, she’d been left unattended in a room with two severely abused brothers, one of whom died as a result of the maltreatment he’d received. Freeborn was told Nicole would likely never talk or interact with others. The Freeborns adopted her.
“The first year we had her, she wouldn’t even engage,” Freeborn recalled. “The only thing that would prompt her to show any type of emotion was being in a swing, so I would sometimes swing her for hours.”
When her daughter was 3, she was hospitalized with pneumonia. Confined to an oxygen tent, the little girl slept with her mother resting by her side.
“One morning, I was lying on the cot and I looked up to see her little face pressed up against this plastic wall and she said, ‘Mommy, I love you.’ Those were her first words.”
Two years later, Freeborn encountered another traumatized 2-year-old. Alaina had a deformed palate and displayed developmental delays. She’d already been with four different foster families.
“They said, ‘Just see her,’” Freeborn said. “She was in a foster home with five other kids and there were animals everywhere. She was cowering in a corner. She had snot encrusted all over her face. I called her name and she kind of looked at me and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. How can I not take her?’”
By the time her second adopted child was 4, Freeborn began to get a handle on the girls’ developmental delays, which made caring for them easier. It also helped that the Freeborn’s amenable son Ryan embraced his new sisters without a second thought, but little else came trouble-free for the family.
“They were two extremes,” Freeborn said. “Nicole was a fighter and Alaina resorted to flight. Alaina just wanted to die. Nicole fought everything. They were two different type of children, but both with needs and beautiful on the inside. We just needed to find where that beauty was.”
‘Reaching out to others soothes the soul’
Freeborn persevered as her children grew to adulthood – through therapy sessions and trips to the principal’s office, as well as the loss of both her parents to cancer within a short span and the end of her 25-year marriage. She found a way to go forward by becoming more involved in causes close to her heart.
“I think the more you take the focus off yourself and actually look outward, the more you see your life is not so bad,” she said. “There are so many people with bigger worries – worries about where they’re going to get their food and how they’re going to get shelter. Reaching out to others soothes the soul. It gives me a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose.”
Children have remained a focus for her community-service work now that her three kids are off on their own and flourishing. Freeborn puts in about 20 hours a week in various outreach activities, most of that time spent as a Washington State Court Appointed Special Advocate. A CASA is a trained, court-appointed advocate for abused and neglected children in dependency court.
“In Washington, both parents are given a lawyer to defend their interests. The child does not have a lawyer. So I act on their behalf,” she explained. “There are over 200 cases in Washington of children waiting for a CASA. There aren’t enough volunteers.”
Freeborn said her Starbucks job allows her to stay involved in her community. “We need to be brave to seek it out and inspire others to do the same," she added.
Starbucks is committed to hiring at least 10,000 veterans and military spouses by the end of 2018. Discover more stories about how Starbucks is Paying Tribute and Creating Opportunity for people who've served and sacrificed for the country.
Portrait photo credit: Brad Shaffer